Former Vice President Al Gore and the Rev. William Barber II, co-chair of the national Poor People's Campaign, held a town hall in Alabama Thursday to spotlight environmental justice issues.
The two toured a neighborhood in Lowndes County where residents say the sewage system regularly overflows into their yards and homes. They then held a town hall in the town of Hayneville.
70-year-old Charlie Mae Holcombe of Hayneville says heavy rains are always a sign of trouble. She says the toilets in her house will begin to bubble as a sign the sewage system is about to backup, sometimes filling her yard — including the area around a child's swing set — and her house with raw sewage.
"They have had to come and pump it out of my yard with the pump truck," Holcombe said. "It's backing up, even in my bathtub. The sewage has run over all in the house."
Her home in Lowndes County is in an area that has been plagued by sewage problems and concerns about potential illness.
"I have heard about it and seen pictures of it for a long time, but it was shocking to see it in person," Gore said regarding the conditions he saw.
Alabama's Black Belt region gets its name for the dark rich soil that once gave rise to cotton plantations. But the unique soil makes it difficult for traditional septic tanks, in which wastewater filters through the ground, to function properly. That's according to Alabama State Health Officer Scott Harris.
The region's intense poverty and inadequate municipal infrastructure also contribute to the problem.
"Sewage is typically handled at a local level... These counties haven't always been able to do that," Harris says.
Catherine Coleman Flowers, an activist who has worked on rural environmental issues in the county for years, says wastewater sanitation problems are not limited to Alabama's Black Belt.
"It's all over the country," Flowers said, adding that climate change, with heavy rains and rising water tables, will make it worse.
Holcombe says she's not sure exactly what it means, but when a red light flashes at a sewage treatment lagoon across the street, it is a reliable sign that her yard will flood.
In addition to overwhelmed septic and sewage systems, some homes in the rural county are on "straight pipe" systems where sewage runs untreated from their homes directly into their yards.
Harris says a survey conducted in May of almost 200 Lowndes County households found that two to three percent of the households were on straight pipe systems.
Holcombe's home sits not far from the state highway where voting rights marchers walked from Selma to Montgomery in 1965.
Barber notes the proximity to the key sites of the civil rights movement and says the environmental issues are about the continued fight for justice.
The town hall, held at a community center in Hayneville, focused on a number of environmental issues.
Birmingham resident Jimmy Smith described living near a Superfund site in Birmingham. Others described concerns about landfills, straight pipe sewage systems and coal ash disposal in the Black Belt.
At the town hall, Gore criticized what he described as the continued resistance from power companies and politicians to switching to renewable forms of energy such as solar energy:
"It's really a disgrace that this far Southern state with abundant sunshine is deprived of the advantages of the solar revolution being enjoyed all over the world."